PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) – U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met Saturday with Panamanian President Martin Torrijos and expressed support for regional security agreements aimed at reducing drug trafficking, terrorism and other threats in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“This collaboration will bolster the security of the Western Hemisphere,” Rumsfeld said during a press conference.

Rumsfeld and other officials frequently describe gaps in security in the region, opened by less-than-perfect cooperation between dozens of countries and security agencies. Arguing those holes are exploited by criminals, the U.S. government has promoted joint naval exercises and other diplomatic efforts.

Rumsfeld appeared with Hector Aleman, Panama’s minister of government and justice, who spoke of efforts to ensure the Panama Canal is safe from terrorist attack.

“The Panama Canal is a property of humanity,” Rumsfeld said in Spanish.

U.S. officials say the primary terrorism threat in the region is related to the Colombian civil war and narcotics, not al-Qaida-style strikes. Rumsfeld said there’s limited intelligence that al-Qaida operatives have considered entering the United States through Latin America, but less information that they might plot an attack.

There have been reports that alleged al-Qaida operative Adnan G. El Shukrijumah spent time in Central America. Another defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that even if those reports are true, it is highly unlikely he stayed there, given the publicity he has recieved.

Rumsfeld’s visit to Panama is the first by a senior U.S. official since the recent inauguration of Torrijos, a member of the party of Manuel Noriega, the strongman ousted by the U.S. invasion in 1989. U.S. defense officials have praised his administration thus far.

The defense secretary, on a weeklong trip through Latin America, has already visited El Salvador and Nicaragua, two countries that contributed troops to peacekeeping operations in Iraq. He will tour the canal Sunday and then head to Quito, Ecuador, for a meeting of Western Hemisphere defense ministers.

AP-ES-11-13-04 1743EST



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